125 Ways to Enhance Usability,
Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better
Design Decisions, and Teach through Design
For our dads...
John C. Butler
Larry W. Lidwell
11 Foreword 54 Confirmation 98 Fitts’ Law
12 Introduction 56 Consistency 100 Five Hat Racks
14 80/20 Rule 58 Constancy 102 Flexibility-Usability Tradeoff
16 Accessibility 60 Constraint 104 Forgiveness
18 Advance Organizer 62 Contour Bias 106 Form Follows Function
20 Aesthetic-Usability Effect 64 Control 108 Framing
22 Affordance 66 Convergence 110 Freeze-Flight-Fight-Forfeit
24 Alignment 68 Cost-Benefit 112 Garbage In–Garbage Out
26 Anthropomorphic Form 70 Defensible Space 114 Golden Ratio
28 Archetypes 72 Depth of Processing 116 Good Continuation
30 Area Alignment 74 Design by Commitee 118 Gutenberg Diagram
32 Attractiveness Bias 76 Desire Line 120 Hick’s Law
34 Baby-Face Bias 78 Development Cycle 122 Hierarchy
36 Biophilia Effect 80 Entry Point 124 Hierarchy of Needs
38 Cathedral Effect 82 Errors 126 Highlighting
40 Chunking 84 Expectation Effect 128 Horror Vacui
42 Classical Conditioning 86 Exposure Effect 130 Hunter-Nurturer Fixations
44 Closure 88 Face-ism Ratio 132 Iconic Representation
46 Cognitive Dissonance 90 Factor of Safety 134 Immersion
48 Color 92 Feedback Loop 136 Inattentional Blindness
50 Common Fate 94 Fibonacci Sequence 138 Interference Effects
52 Comparison 96 Figure-Ground Relationship 140 Inverted Pyramid
142 Iteration 184 Picture Superiority Effect 228 Stickiness
144 Law of Prägnanz 186 Priming 230 Storytelling
146 Layering 188 Progressive Disclosure 232 Structural Forms
148 Legibility 190 Propositional Density 234 Symmetry
150 Life Cycle 192 Prospect-Refuge 236 Threat Detection
152 Mapping 194 Prototyping 238 Three-Dimensional Projection
154 Mental Model 196 Proximity 240 Top-Down Lighting Bias
156 Mimicry 198 Readability 242 Uncanny Valley
158 Mnemonic Device 200 Recognition Over Recall 244 Uncertainty Principle
160 Modularity 202 Red Effect 246 Uniform Connectedness
162 Most Advanced Yet Acceptable 204 Redundancy 248 Veblen Effect
164 Most Average Facial 206 Rosetta Stone 250 Visibility
Appearance Effect 208 Rule of Thirds 252 Visuospacial Resonance
166 Normal Distribution 210 Satisficing 254 von Restorff Effect
168 Not Invented Here 212 Savanna Preference 256 Wabi-Sabi
170 Nudge 214 Scaling Fallacy 258 Waist-to-Hip Ratio
172 Ockham’s Razor 216 Scarcity 260 Wayfinding
174 Operant Conditioning 218 Self-Similarity 262 Weakest Link
176 Orientation Sensitivity 220 Serial Position Effects 264 Credits
178 Performance Load 222 Shaping 266 Acknowledgments
180 Performance Versus Preference 224 Signal-to-Noise Ratio 267 About the Authors
182 Personas 226 Similarity 268 Index
How can I influence the How can I help people How can I enhance the
way a design is perceived? learn from a design? usability of a design?
22 Affordance 16 Accessibility 14 80/20 Rule
24 Alignment 18 Advance Organizer 16 Accessibility
26 Anthromorphic Form 36 Biophilia Effect 20 Aesthetic-Usability Effect
44 Closure 38 Cathedral Effect 22 Affordance
48 Color 40 Chunking 54 Confirmation
50 Common Fate 42 Classical Conditioning 56 Consistency
56 Consistency 52 Comparison 60 Constraint
58 Constancy 72 Depth of Processing 64 Control
62 Contour Bias 86 Exposure Effect 68 Cost-Benefit
88 Face-ism Ratio 104 Forgiveness 76 Desire Line
96 Figure-Ground Relationship 112 Garbage In–Garbage Out 80 Entry Point
100 Five Hat Racks 122 Hierarchy 82 Errors
116 Good Continuation 134 Immersion 98 Fitts’ Law
118 Gutenberg Diagram 138 Interference Effects 104 Forgiveness
126 Highlighting 140 Inverted Pyramid 110 Freeze-Flight-Fight-Forfeit
128 Horror Vacui 146 Layering 120 Hick’s Law
132 Iconic Representation 148 Legibility 122 Hierarchy
136 Inattentional Blindness 154 Mental Model 132 Iconic Representation
138 Interference Effects 158 Mnemonic Device 134 Immersion
144 Law of Prägnanz 174 Operant Conditioning 138 Interference Effects
146 Layering 178 Performance Load 140 Inverted Pyramid
148 Legibility 184 Picture Superiority Effect 146 Layering
152 Mapping 188 Progressive Disclosure 152 Mapping
176 Orientation Sensitivity 198 Readability 154 Mental Model
186 Priming 200 Recognition Over Recall 156 Mimicry
196 Proximity 206 Rosetta Stone 170 Nudge
202 Red Effect 220 Serial Position Effects 178 Performance Load
224 Signal-to-Noise Ratio 222 Shaping 182 Personas
236 Threat Detection 224 Signal-to-Noise Ratio 188 Progressive Disclosure
238 Three-Dimensional Projection 228 Stickiness 198 Readability
240 Top-Down Lighting Bias 230 Storytelling 200 Recognition Over Recall
246 Uniform Connectedness 254 von Restorff Effect 224 Signal-to-Noise Ratio
250 Visibility 250 Visibility
252 Visuospacial Resonance 260 Wayfinding
8 Universal Principles of Design
How can I increase the How can I make better
appeal of a design? design decisions?
20 Aesthetic-Usability Effect 240 Top-Down Lighting Bias 14 80/20 Rule
24 Alignment 242 Uncanny Valley 16 Accessibility
26 Anthromorphic Form 248 Veblen Effect 52 Comparison
28 Archetypes 256 Wabi-Sabi 66 Convergence
30 Area Alignment 258 Waist-to-Hip Ratio 68 Cost-Benefit
32 Attractiveness Bias 74 Design by Committee
34 Baby-Face Bias 78 Development Cycle
42 Classical Conditioning 82 Errors
46 Cognitive Dissonance 84 Expectation Effect
48 Color 90 Factor of Safety
70 Defensible Space 92 Feedback Loop
80 Entry Point 102 Flexibility-Usability Tradeoff
86 Exposure Effect 106 Form Follows Function
88 Face-ism Ratio 110 Freeze-Flight-Fight-Forfeit
94 Fibonacci Sequence 112 Garbage In–Garbage Out
108 Framing 124 Hierarchy of Needs
114 Golden Ratio 142 Iteration
130 Hunter-Nurturer Fixations 150 Life Cycle
156 Mimicry 160 Modularity
164 Most Average Facial 162 Most Advanced Yet Acceptable
Appearance Effect 166 Normal Distribution
174 Operant Conditioning 168 Not Invented Here
190 Propositional Density 172 Ockham’s Razor
192 Prospect-Refuge 180 Performance Versus Preference
202 Red Effect 182 Personas
208 Rule of Thirds 194 Prototyping
212 Savanna Preference 204 Redundancy
216 Scarcity 210 Satisficing
218 Self-Similarity 214 Scaling Fallacy
224 Signal-to-Noise Ratio 232 Structural Forms
226 Similarity 244 Uncertainty Principle
228 Stickiness 262 Weakest Link
Courses in psychology and anthropology were glaringly absent from my
undergraduate and graduate design education. Indeed, a deeper understanding
of human behavior and a scholarly approach to design were almost entirely
overlooked. I left college with considerable knowledge in form making and very
little knowledge in understanding human perception and meaning making.
Universal Principles of Design is a resource that helps to fill in some of the gaps,
dispel myths, and give sound reasons for much of what is felt intuitively, and yet
not fully understood.
For years I’ve been a fan of the HGTV house buying-fixing-renovating shows on
TV, and I’ve never seen one person express a desire for low ceilings, rooms with
small windows, or a bad view. Universal Principles of Design guides the designer
toward the reasons that people love high, expansive ceilings — the Cathedral
Effect — and big windows with beautiful nature views — the Biophilia Effect. And
who would have guessed that high ceilings promote creativity and that views of
nature are restorative to the sense of well-being?
I’ve never really had reasons as to why some products resonate with many
people and others don’t, nor did I know that there’s a method to calculate the
human response. Intuitively, I’ve always felt that good design coupled with good
quality trumped all, and although those two qualities are a big part of the picture,
there’s much more to consider in the deeper underlying symbols and meanings.
Propositional Density looks at meaning in terms of analogies of shape, meaning,
and supposition. It gives the designer the ability to calculate the product design’s
capability to resonate with people. Maybe even more importantly, it gives the
designer a way to communicate with a client in terms of supporting the choices
that have been made for the design.
Universal Principles of Design brought me to a deeper understanding of the
human equation in design. There’s so much more to design than what meets the
eye in surface styling. Human motivation is mysterious and tied to subconscious
instincts, perceptions, and influences. Universal Principles of Design reveals
the driving forces behind human motivation and brings the designer to an
understanding of the intuitive. These principles aren’t guesswork. They’re real,
based on sound research, and they work.
Chair of Graphic + Interactive Communication Department
Ringling College of Art and Design
Not long ago, designers were eclectic generalists. They studied art, science, and
religion in order to understand the basic workings of nature, and then applied
what they learned to solve the problems of the day. Over time, the quantity and
complexity of accumulated knowledge led to increased specialization among
designers, and breadth of knowledge was increasingly traded for depth of
knowledge. This trend continues today. As designers become more specialized,
awareness of advances and discoveries in other areas of specialization diminishes.
This is inevitable and unfortunate, since much can be learned from progress in
other design disciplines.
Convenient access to cross-disciplinary design knowledge has not previously been
available. A designer interested in learning about other areas of specialization
would have to study texts from many different design disciplines. Determining
which texts in each discipline are worthy of study would be the first challenge,
deciphering the specialized terminology of the texts the second, and enduring the
depth of detail the third. The effort is significant, and rarely expended beyond brief
excursions into unfamiliar areas to research specific problems. The goal of this
book is to assist designers with these challenges, and reduce the effort required to
learn about the key principles of design across disciplines.
The concepts in this book, broadly referred to as “principles,” consist of laws,
guidelines, human biases, and general design considerations. The principles
were selected from a variety of design disciplines based on several factors,
including utility, degree of misuse or misunderstanding, and strength of supporting
evidence. The selection of 125 concepts should not be interpreted to mean that
there are only 125 relevant principles of design—there are obviously many more.
12 Universal Principles of Design
The book is organized alphabetically so that principles can be easily and quickly
referenced by name. For those interested in addressing a specific problem of
design, the principles have also been indexed by questions commonly confronting
designers (see previous page). Each principle is presented in a two-page format.
The left-hand page contains a succinct definition, a full description of the
principle, examples of its use, and guidelines for use. Side notes appear to the
right of the text, and provide elaborations and references. The right-hand page
contains visual examples and related graphics to support a deeper understanding
of the principle.
Sound design is not only within the reach of a small set of uniquely talented
individuals, but can be achieved by virtually all designers. The use of well-
established design principles increases the probability that a design will be
successful. Use Universal Principles of Design as a resource to increase your
cross-disciplinary knowledge and understanding of design, promote brainstorming
and idea generation for design problems, and refresh your memory of design
principles that are infrequently applied. Finally, use it as a means of checking
the quality of your design process and product. A paraphrase of William Strunk’s
famous admonition makes the point nicely:
The best designers sometimes disregard the principles of design.
When they do so, however, there is usually some compensating merit
attained at the cost of the violation. Unless you are certain of doing
as well, it is best to abide by the principles.
A high percentage of effects in any large system are
caused by a low percentage of variables.1
The 80/20 rule asserts that approximately 80 percent of the effects generated
Also known as Pareto’s Principle, Juran’s
Principle, and Vital Few and Trivial Many Rule.
by any large system are caused by 20 percent of the variables in that system.
The 80/20 rule is observed in all large systems, including those in economics,
management, user interface design, quality control, and engineering, to name a
The first recognition of the 80/20 rule is
attributed to Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian
few. The specific percentages are not important, as measures of actual systems economist who observed that 20 percent of
indicate that the proportion of critical variables varies between 10 percent and 30 the Italian people possessed 80 percent of the
percent. The universality of the 80/20 rule suggests a link to normally distributed wealth. The seminal work on the 80/20 rule is
systems, which limits its application to variables that are influenced by many small Quality Control Handbook by Joseph M. Juran
(Ed.), McGraw-Hill, 1951.
and unrelated effects—e.g., systems that are used by large numbers of people in
a variety of ways. A few examples of the 80/20 rule include: 2
80 percent of a product’s usage involves 20 percent of its features.
80 percent of a town’s traffic is on 20 percent of its roads.
80 percent of a company’s revenue comes from 20 percent of its products.
80 percent of innovation comes from 20 percent of the people.
80 percent of progress comes from 20 percent of the effort.
80 percent of errors are caused by 20 percent of the components.
The 80/20 rule is useful for focusing resources and, in turn, realizing greater
efficiencies in design. For example, if the critical 20 percent of a product’s
features are used 80 percent of the time, design and testing resources should
focus primarily on those features. The remaining 80 percent of the features should
be reevaluated to verify their value in the design. Similarly, when redesigning
systems to make them more efficient, focusing on aspects of the system beyond
the critical 20 percent quickly yields diminishing returns; improvements beyond
the critical 20 percent will result in less substantial gains that are often offset by
the introduction of errors or new problems into the system.
All elements in a design are not created equal. Use the 80/20 rule to assess the
value of elements, target areas of redesign and optimization, and focus resources
in an efficient manner. Noncritical functions that are part of the less-important 80
percent should be minimized or removed altogether from the design. When time
and resources are limited, resist efforts to correct and optimize designs beyond
the critical 20 percent, as such efforts yield diminishing returns. Generally, limit
the application of the 80/20 rule to variables in a system that are influenced by
many small and unrelated effects.
See also Cost-Benefit, Form Follows Function, Highlighting, Most Advanced Yet
Acceptable, and Normal Distribution.
14 Universal Principles of Design
File Edit View Format Font Paragraph Help
File Edit View Format Font Paragraph Help
Header and Footer Formatting
Full Screen Drawing
Graphical user interfaces conceal
most of their functions in drop-down
menus (bottom image). This reduces
the complexity of the display, but also
makes frequently used functions more
difficult to access. Identifying the critical
20 percent of the functions and making
them readily available in toolbars solves
the problem (top image).
80/20 Rule 15
Objects and environments should be designed to be usable,
without modification, by as many people as possible.1
The principle of accessibility asserts that designs should be usable by people of 1
Also known as barrier-free design and related
diverse abilities, without special adaptation or modification. Historically, accessibility to universal design and inclusive design.
in design focused on accommodating people with disabilities. As knowledge and
experience of accessible design increased, it became increasingly clear that many
The four characteristics of accessible
designs are derived from W3C Web Content
required “accommodations” could be designed to benefit everyone. There are
Accessibility Guidelines 1. 0, 1999; ADA
four characteristics of accessible designs: perceptibility, operability, simplicity, Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and
and forgiveness.2 Facilities, 1998; and Accessible Environments:
Toward Universal Design by Ronald L. Mace,
Perceptibility is achieved when everyone can perceive the design, regardless Graeme J. Hardie, and Jaine P. Place, The
Center for Universal Design, North Carolina
of sensory abilities. Basic guidelines for improving perceptibility are: present State University, 1996.
information using redundant coding methods (e.g., textual, iconic, and tactile);
provide compatibility with assistive sensory technologies (e.g., ALT tags for images
on the Internet); and position controls and information so that seated and standing
users can perceive them.
Operability is achieved when everyone can use the design, regardless of physical
abilities. Basic guidelines for improving operability are: minimize repetitive actions
and the need for sustained physical effort; facilitate use of controls through
good affordances and constraints; provide compatibility with assistive physical
technologies (e.g., wheelchair access); and position controls and information so
that seated and standing users can access them.
Simplicity is achieved when everyone can easily understand and use the design,
regardless of experience, literacy, or concentration level. Basic guidelines for
improving simplicity are: remove unnecessary complexity; clearly and consistently
code and label controls and modes of operation; use progressive disclosure to
present only relevant information and controls; provide clear prompting and
feedback for all actions; and ensure that reading levels accommodate a wide
range of literacy.
Forgiveness is achieved when designs minimize the occurrence and consequences
of errors. Basic guidelines for improving forgiveness are: use good affordances and
constraints (e.g., controls that can only be used the correct way) to prevent errors
from occurring; use confirmations and warnings to reduce the occurrence of errors;
and include reversible actions and safety nets to minimize the consequence of
errors (e.g., the ability to undo an action).
See also Affordance, Forgiveness, Legibility, Normal Distribution, and Readability.
16 Universal Principles of Design
Visual feedback 1 2 3 4 5 6
Buttons with raised numbers and Braille
EMERGENCY 4 3
Emergency phone system
Doors wide enough for wheelchairs
Buttons on both sides of door
Buttons accessible from wheelchair
Elevator large enough for wheelchair
The large elevator has many features redundantly coded with numbers,
that make it more accessible than icons, and Braille; feedback is
the small elevator: wide doors permit provided visually and aurally; and
easy access; handrails help people an emergency phone system offers
maintain a standing position; two access to special assistance.
sets of controls are easily accessible
from a seated position; controls are
An instructional technique that helps people understand
new information in terms of what they already know.
Advance organizers are brief chunks of information—spoken, written, or illustrated— 1
The seminal work on advance organizers is
presented prior to new material to help facilitate learning and understanding. They The Psychology of Meaningful Verbal Learning,
Grune and Stratton, 1963; and Educational
are distinct from overviews and summaries in that they are presented on a more Psychology: A Cognitive View (2nd ed.), Holt
abstract level than the rest of the information—they present the “big picture” Reinhart, 1978, both by David P. Ausubel.
prior to the details. Since the technique depends on a defined entry point, it is See also, “In Defense of Advanced Organizers:
generally applied to linear presentations (e.g., traditional classroom instruction), A Reply to the Critics” by David P. Ausubel,
Review of Educational Research, vol. 48 (2),
and does not work as well in nonlinear, exploratory learning contexts (e.g., free-
An overview or summary, by contrast, would
There are two kinds of advance organizers: expository and comparative. The
just present the key points on how to control
decision to use one or the other depends on whether the information is new to a forklift.
people or similar to material they already know. Expository advance organizers are
useful when audiences have little or no knowledge similar to the information being 3
See, for example, “Twenty Years of Research
taught. For example, prior to presenting information on how to control a forklift on Advance Organizers: Assimilation Theory is
to an audience that knows nothing about them, an advance expository organizer Still the Best Predictor of Effects” by Richard
would first briefly describe the equipment and its function.2 E. Mayer, Instructional Science, 1979, vol. 8,
Comparative advance organizers are useful when audiences have existing
knowledge similar to the information being presented. For example, in teaching
experienced forklift operators about how to control a new type of forklift, an
advance comparative organizer would compare and contrast features and
operations between the familiar forklift and the new forklift.
The technique’s effectiveness has been difficult to validate, but it does appear
to have measurable benefits. Use advance organizers in learning situations
that begin with an introduction and present information in a linear sequence.
When presenting novel information, use expository advance organizers. When
presenting information that is similar to what people know, use comparative
See also Inverted Pyramid, Rosetta Stone, and Wayfinding.
18 Universal Principles of Design
Expository Advance Organizers
This is an expository advance
organizer for advance organizers. At A forklift is a small industrial vehicle with a
power-operated pronged platform that can
an abstract level, it illustrates that
be raised and lowered for insertion under a
advance organizers are a kind of
load to be lifted and moved.
instructional strategy (like chunking,
inverted pyramid, and storytelling) and An expository advance
that there are two types. organizer defines a New Information
forklift using familiar
concepts (e.g., vehicle)
To operate a forklift safely, the operator
prior to presenting should know:
specific information about 1. How a forklift works
forklift operation. 2. How to inspect a forklift
3. How to operate a forklift
How a forklift works
How to inspect a forklift
How to operate a forklift
Comparative Advance Organizers
A comparative advance organizer
Familiar Knowledge New Information leverages familiarity with the 1300A
model forklift to introduce the
Acme Forklift 1300A Acme Forklift 2300A
Acme Forklift 1300A Acme Forklift 2300A
Rated Capacity Rated Capacity
Acme Forklift 1300A Acme Forklift 2300A
Load Center Load Center
Acme Forklift 1300A Acme Forklift 2300A
Special Instructions Special Instructions
Advance Organizer 19
Aesthetic designs are perceived as easier to use than
The aesthetic-usability effect describes a phenomenon in which people perceive 1
Note that the authors use the term aesthetic-
usability effect for convenient reference.
more-aesthetic designs as easier to use than less-aesthetic designs—whether they
It does not appear in the seminal work or
are or not. The effect has been observed in several experiments, and has significant subsequent research.
implications regarding the acceptance, use, and performance of a design.2
The seminal work on the aesthetic-usability
Aesthetic designs look easier to use and have a higher probability of being used, effect is “Apparent Usability vs. Inherent
whether or not they actually are easier to use. More usable but less-aesthetic Usability: Experimental Analysis on the
designs may suffer a lack of acceptance that renders issues of usability moot. Determinants of the Apparent Usability” by
These perceptions bias subsequent interactions and are resistant to change. For Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura, CHI ’95
Conference Companion, 1995, p. 292–293.
example, in a study of how people use computers, researchers found that early
impressions influenced long-term attitudes about their quality and use. A similar
“Forming Impressions of Personality” by
phenomenon is well documented with regard to human attractiveness—first
Solomon E. Asch, Journal of Abnormal and
impressions of people influence attitude formation and measurably affect how Social Psychology, 1946, vol. 41, 258–290.
people are perceived and treated.3
“Emotion & Design: Attractive Things Work
Aesthetics play an important role in the way a design is used. Aesthetic designs are Better” by Donald Norman, www.jnd.org, 2002.
more effective at fostering positive attitudes than unaesthetic designs, and make
people more tolerant of design problems. For example, it is common for people
to name and develop feelings toward designs that have fostered positive attitudes
(e.g., naming a car), and rare for people to do the same with designs that have
fostered negative attitudes. Such personal and positive relationships with a design
evoke feelings of affection, loyalty, and patience—all significant factors in the long-
term usability and overall success of a design. These positive relationships have
implications for how effectively people interact with designs. Positive relationships
with a design result in an interaction that helps catalyze creative thinking and
problem solving. Negative relationships result in an interaction that narrows
thinking and stifles creativity. This is especially important in stressful environments,
since stress increases fatigue and reduces cognitive performance.4
Always aspire to create aesthetic designs. Aesthetic designs are perceived as
easier to use, are more readily accepted and used over time, and promote creative
thinking and problem solving. Aesthetic designs also foster positive relationships
with people, making them more tolerant of problems with a design.
See also Attractiveness Bias, Contour Bias, Form Follows Function, Golden Ratio,
Law of Prägnanz, Ockham’s Razor, and Rule of Thirds.
20 Universal Principles of Design
Nokia was one of the first companies
to realize that adoption of cellular
phones required more than basic
communication features. Cellular
phones need to be recharged
frequently, carried around, and often
suffer from signal loss or interference;
they are not trouble-free devices.
Aesthetic elements like color covers
and customizable rings are more than
ornaments; the aesthetic elements
create a positive relationship with
users that, in turn, make such
troubles more tolerable and the
devices more successful.
While VCR’s around the world
continue flashing 12:00 because
users cannot figure out the poorly
designed time and recording
controls, TiVo is setting a new bar
for recording convenience and
usability. TiVo’s intelligent and
automated recording features,
simple navigation through attractive
on-screen menus, and pleasant
and distinct auditory feedback are
changing the way people record
and watch their favorite programs.
Aesthetic-Usability Effect 21
A property in which the physical characteristics of an
object or environment influence its function.
Objects and environments are better suited for some functions than others. Round 1
The seminal work on affordances is “The
Theory of Affordances” by James Gibson,
wheels are better suited than square wheels for rolling; therefore, round wheels
in Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing by R.
are said to better afford rolling. Stairs are better suited than fences for climbing; E. Shaw & J. Bransford (Eds), Lawrence
therefore, stairs are said to better afford climbing. This is not to say that square Erlbaum Associates, 1977; and The Ecological
wheels cannot be rolled or fences climbed, rather that the physical characteristics Approach to Visual Perception by James
of round wheels and stairs better afford the functions of rolling and climbing.1 Gibson, Houghton Mifflin, 1979. A popular
treatment of affordances can be found in The
Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman,
When the affordance of an object or environment corresponds with its intended Doubleday, 1990.
function, the design will perform more efficiently and will be easier to use.
Conversely, when the affordance of an object or environment conflicts with its 2
Note that the term affordance refers to the
intended function, the design will perform less efficiently and be more difficult to properties of a physical object or environment
use. For example, a door with a handle affords pulling. Sometimes, doors with only. When images of physical objects or
handles are designed to open only by pushing—the affordance of the handle environments are used (e.g., image of a
conflicts with the door’s function. Replace the handle with a flat plate, and it now button), the images, themselves, do not afford
anything. The knowledge of button affordances
affords pushing—the affordance of the flat plate corresponds to the way in which
exists in the mind of the perceiver based
the door can be used. The design is improved. on experience with physical buttons—it is
not a property of the image. Therefore, the
Images of common physical objects and environments can enhance the usability affordance is said to be perceived. See, for
of a design. For example, a drawing of a three-dimensional button on a computer example, “Affordances and Design” by Donald
screen leverages our knowledge of the physical characteristics of buttons and,
therefore, appears to afford pressing. The popular “desktop” metaphor used by
computer operating systems is based on this idea—images of common items like
trash cans and folders leverage our knowledge of how those items function in the
real world and, thus, suggest their function in the software environment.2
Whenever possible, you should design objects and environments to afford their
intended function, and negatively afford improper use. For example, stackable
chairs should only stack one way. Mimic familiar objects and environments in
abstract contexts (e.g., software interfaces) to imply the way in which new systems
can be used. When affordances are successfully employed in a design, it will
seem inconceivable that the design could function or be used otherwise.
See also Constraint, Desire Line, Mapping, and Nudge.
22 Universal Principles of Design
OXO is well known for the handle
designs of their products; shape,
color, and texture combine to create
irresistible gripping affordances.
Outdoor lighting structures often With opposing male and female
afford landing and perching for birds. surfaces and featureless sides,
Where birds perch, birds poop. This Legos naturally afford plugging into
anti-perch fixture is designed to attach one another.
to such structures and reduce the
Door affordances frequently conflict,
as shown in the door on the left.
The “push” affordance of the door is
knowable only because of the sign,
which conflicts with the powerful
“pull” affordance of the handle. By
replacing the handle with a flat plate,
the conflict is eliminated and the sign
is superfluous. The recessed footplates and
handlebar orientation of the
Segway Human Transporter
afford one mounting position
for the user—the correct one.
The placement of elements such that edges line up
along common rows or columns, or their bodies along a
Elements in a design should be aligned with one or more other elements. This 1
See, for example, Elements of Graph Design
by Stephen M. Kosslyn, W. H. Freeman and
creates a sense of unity and cohesion, which contributes to the design’s overall
Company, 1994, p. 172.
aesthetic and perceived stability. Alignment can also be a powerful means of
leading a person through a design. For example, the rows and columns of a
grid or table make explicit the relatedness of elements sharing those rows and
columns, and lead the eyes left-right and top-bottom accordingly. Edges of the
design medium (e.g., edge of a page or screen) and the natural positions on the
design medium (e.g., centerlines) should also be considered alignment elements.
In paragraph text, left-aligned and right-aligned text blocks provide more powerful
alignment cues than do center-aligned text blocks. The invisible column created
by left-aligned and right-aligned text blocks presents a clear, visual cue against
which other elements of the design can be aligned. Center-aligned text blocks,
conversely, provide more visually ambiguous alignment cues, and can be difficult
to connect with other elements. Justified text provides more alignment cues than
unjustified text, and should be used in complex compositions with many elements.
Although alignment is generally defined in terms of rows and columns, more
complex forms of alignment exist. In aligning elements along diagonals, for
example, the relative angles between the invisible alignment paths should be 30
degrees or greater; separation of less than 30 degrees is too subtle and difficult
to detect.1 In spiral or circular alignments, it may be necessary to augment or
highlight the alignment paths so that the alignment is perceptible; otherwise
the elements can appear disparate, and the design disordered. As with all such
principles of this type, there are exceptions (e.g., the misalignment of elements
to attract attention or create tension). However, these exceptions are rare, and
alignment should be considered the general rule.
For most designs, align elements into rows and columns or along a centerline.
When elements are not arranged in a row/column format, consider highlighting the
alignment paths. Use left- or right-justified text to create the best alignment cues,
and consider justified text for complex compositions.
See also Aesthetic-Usability Effect, Area Alignment, and Good Continuation.
24 Universal Principles of Design
Although there are a number of This conclusion is supported by adjacent on the ballot. A simple
problems with the design of the the improbable number of votes for adjustment to the ballot design
butterfly ballot, most of the confusion Patrick Buchanan in Palm Beach would have dramatically reduced
resulted from the misalignment County, and the number of double the error rate.
of the rows and punch-hole lines. votes that occurred for candidates
A tendency to find forms that appear humanoid or exhibit
humanlike characteristics appealing.
Humans are predisposed to perceive certain forms and patterns as
Empirical literature on anthropomorphic design
is surprisingly nascent. See, for example,
humanlike — specifically, forms and patterns that resemble faces and body
“From Seduction to Fulfillment: The Use of
proportions. This tendency, when applied to design, is an effective means of Anthropomorphic Form in Design” by Carl
getting attention, establishing a positive affective tone for interactions, and DiSalvo and Francine Gemperle, Proceedings
forming a relationship based, in part, on emotional appeal. To explore how of the 2003 International Conference
anthropomorphic form can be applied, consider the design of three bottles.1 on Designing Pleasurable Products and
Interfaces, 2003, p. 67–72.
The classic 1915 Coca-Cola “contour” bottle, often referred to as the “Mae West”
bottle due to its distinctly feminine proportions, was a break with the straight and
relatively featureless bottles of its day. In addition to its novelty, however, the bottle
benefited from a number of anthropomorphic projections such as health, vitality,
sexiness, and femininity, attributes that appealed to the predominantly female
buyers of the time. The Mae West comparison is apt, because like the actress,
the Coke bottle demanded (and got) the attention of all passersby.
Anthropomorphic forms do not necessarily need to look like a face or body to be
compelling. Consider the Adiri Natural Nurser baby bottle. The bottle is designed
to look and feel like a female breast, and not surprisingly it elicits the positive
associations people have with breastfeeding. The affective tone set by the bottle is
one of naturalness and caring. What parent would choose a traditional, inorganic-
looking bottle when such a supple, natural-looking substitute for the real thing
was available? This, of course, does not mean the bottle performs better than
nonanthropomorphic bottle designs, but it does mean the general inference of
most people, based on its appearance, is that it does perform better.
Lastly, the Method Dish Soap bottle, nicknamed the “dish butler,” brings a more
abstract anthropomorphic form to bear. The bottle transforms the perception of
dish soap bottles from utilitarian containers to be hidden beneath counters to
sculptural pieces to be displayed proudly atop counters. The large bulbous head
triggers baby-face bias cognitive wiring, reinforcing its aesthetic appeal as well as
associations such as safety, honesty, and purity. Labeling is applied in what would
be the chest region, with a round logo on top, giving it the appearance of a kind
of superhero costume. It is more than a dish soap bottle — it is a helper, an art
piece, and a symbol of sophistication and cleanliness.
Consider anthropomorphic forms to attract attention and establish emotional
connections. Favor more abstract versus realistic anthropomorphic forms, as
realistic depictions often decrease, not increase, aesthetic appeal. Use feminine
body proportions to elicit associations of sexuality and vitality. Use round
anthropomorphic forms to elicit babylike associations, and more angular forms to
elicit masculine, aggressive associations.
See also Baby-Face Bias, Contour Bias, Uncanny Valley, and Waist-to-Hip Ratio.
26 Universal Principles of Design
The Method Dish Soap bottle (left)
designed by Karim Rashid put the
Method brand on the map. Though
not free of functional deficiencies
(e.g., leaking valve), its abstract
anthropomorphic form gave it a
sculptural, affective quality not
previously found in soap bottles.
Contrast it with its disappointing
Anthropomorphic Form 27
Universal patterns of theme and form resulting from innate
biases or dispositions.
Archetypes are found in the themes of myths (e.g., death and rebirth), characters 1
The seminal work on archetypes is “The
Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious”
in literature (e.g., hero and villain), and imagery in dreams (e.g., eyes and teeth).
by Carl G. Jung, in the Collected Works of C.
They are believed to be a product of unconscious biases and dispositions that G. Jung, Vol. 9 Part 1 (translated by R. F. C.
have been “hardwired” in the brain over the course of human evolution. Since Hull), Princeton University Press, 1981.
these innate biases and dispositions are unconscious, their existence is inferred
when common patterns emerge in many cultures over long periods. Identifying 2
See The Hero and the Outlaw: Building
and aligning appropriate archetypes with a design will increase its probability of Extraordinary Brands through the Power of
success.1 Archetypes by Margaret Mark and Carol S.
Pearson, McGraw-Hill Trade, 2001.
Harley-Davidson aligns its product design and branding with the outlaw archetype,
emphasizing freedom and living outside the rules of society. Products have a
The seminal work on archetypes in storytelling
is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph
certain look and feel (e.g., black and chrome motorcycles with a loud, distinctive
Campbell, Princeton University Press, 1960.
sound) and marketing images emphasize rugged looking people in black leather.
Nike (named after the Greek goddess of victory), by contrast, aligns its brand with
the Hero archetype, using heroic sports figures to promote its product. Michael
Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Lance Armstrong are all shown wearing Nike products
while typically striking a heroic pose. This does not mean that a picture of Michael
Jordan on a Harley wouldn’t help sell motorcycles, or that a picture of a group of
outlaws wearing Nike leather jackets wouldn’t help sell sportswear. It does mean
that the probability of success would be lower because the archetypes do not align
with the design.2
In storytelling, archetypal themes are all too familiar. For example, one archetypal
plot—the Hero’s Journey—can be summarized as follows: a prospective hero is
called to an adventure that he or she refuses; a meeting with a mentor occurs and
the hero meets the call; the hero experiences various trials, often including the
defeat or death of the mentor by an ultimate enemy; the hero must overcome self-
doubt and confront the ultimate enemy; the hero defeats the ultimate enemy and
returns home to great celebration. This archetypal theme has been successfully
employed by filmmakers like George Lucas and George Miller, and is also evident
in the works of Steven Spielberg, John Boorman, Francis Coppola, and a number
of Disney animated films.3
Consider archetypal themes and forms in all aspects of a design—from form
and function to name and brand. Since archetypes influence perception on
an unconscious and primarily affective level, they are especially useful when
traditional modes of communication (e.g., language) cannot be used. Note that
reactions to specific archetypes may vary across cultures and, therefore, should
be tested on target populations prior to use.
See also Affordance, Biophilia Effect, Contour Bias, Mimicry, and
28 Universal Principles of Design
These are proposed designs for years), clearly warn people to stay brilliant application of archetypal
a marker system to warn future away from the area, and assume theme and form—parched earth,
generations of the presence of a that future civilizations will not be snakelike earthworks, and claws and
nuclear- waste disposal site. The knowledgeable of radioactive hazards thorns—to warn future humans of the
design specification required the or speak any language known today. radioactive hazards on an affective,
markers to stand for the life of The designs address this seemingly instinctive level.
the radioactive hazard (10,000 impossible specification through the
Alignment based on the area of elements versus the
edges of elements.
With the advent of professional design and engineering software, elements in a
design can be aligned with exacting precision. However, the alignment supported
by software is based on the edges of elements — including center alignment,
which calculates a center based on the edges. This method works well when
elements are relatively uniform and symmetrical, but less well when the elements
are nonuniform and asymmetrical. In these latter cases, it is preferable to align
based on the visual weight or area of the elements, a technique that must be
performed using the designer’s eye and judgment. Using edge alignment when
area alignment is called for is one of the most common errors in graphic design.
A satisfactory area alignment can be achieved by positioning an object along the
axis of alignment such that an equal amount of area or visual weight hangs on
either side — if the object had mass, it would be balanced on the axis. Unlike the
straight edge achieved by left- or right-aligning similar elements based on their
edges, alignment based on area invariably creates a ragged edge. This requires
that parts of elements hang in the gutters or margins when aligned with strongly
rectilinear elements, but it represents the strongest possible perceived alignment
that can be achieved for morphologically dissimilar elements.
The principle applies to text as well as graphical elements. For example, the
horizontal center of a left-aligned text chunk with a right ragged edge, based
on its area, would be to the left of a horizontal center based on its width — area
alignment calculates the horizontal center in consideration of the reduced area
of the ragged right edge, moving the horizontal center to the left, whereas edge
alignment simply calculates the horizontal center as though the text chunk were
a rectangle, with the right edge determined by the rightmost character. Other
common text examples include pull quotes, which should be aligned based on
the text edge and not on the quotation marks; and numbered or bulleted items,
which should be aligned based on the text edge and not on the numbers and
bullets, unless the specific intent is to subordinate the listed items.
Consider area alignment when incorporating dissimilar elements into a
composition. When objects are simple and symmetrical, align based on their
edges; otherwise, align based on their areas. Unless there is some extraordinary
overriding consideration, always hang pull quotes. Hang numbers and bullets
when listing items, except when the items are meant to be subordinate.
See also Alignment, Good Continuation, and Uniform Connectedness.
30 Universal Principles of Design
The left column is center-aligned
based on the edges of the objects.
The right column is center-aligned
based on the areas of the objects.
Note the improvement achieved by
using area alignment.
Area Aliggnment 31
A tendency to see attractive people as more intelligent,
competent, moral, and sociable than unattractive people.1
Attractive people are generally perceived more positively than unattractive people. 1
Also known as look-ism.
They receive more attention from the opposite sex, receive more affection from
their mothers, receive more leniency from judges and juries, and receive more 2
The seminal work on the attractiveness bias
votes from the electorate than do unattractive people. All other variables being is “What Is Beautiful Is Good” by Karen Dion,
Ellen Berscheid, and Elaine Walster, Journal
equal, attractive people are preferred in hiring decisions, and will make more
of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972,
money doing the same work than unattractive people. The attractiveness bias is vol. 24(3), p. 285–290. A nice contemporary
a function of both biological and environmental factors.2 review of the attractiveness bias research is
“Maxims or Myths of Beauty? A Meta-analytic
Biologically speaking, people are attractive when they exude health and fertility. and Theoretical Review” by Judith H. Langlois,
et al., Psychological Bulletin, 2000, vol. 126(3),
Good biological measures for health and fertility are average and symmetrical
facial features, and a waist-to-hip ratio in the ideal range (0.70 for women, 0.90 for
men). An absence of these features is thought to be an indicator of malnutrition, 3
See, for example, “Baby Beautiful: Adult
disease, or bad genes; none of which are preferable attributes for a potential mate. Attributions of Infant Competence as a
Biological factors of attraction are innate and true across cultures. For example, Function of Infant Attractiveness” by Cookie
in studies presenting images of attractive and unattractive people to babies (two- W. Stephan and Judith H. Langlois, Child
months-old and six-months-old), the babies looked longer at the attractive people Development, 1984, vol. 55, p. 576–585.
regardless of their gender, age, or race.3
Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
Environmentally speaking, men are attracted to women when they exaggerate by Nancy Etcoff, Anchor Books, 2000.
socially acknowledged features of sexuality (e.g., lipstick to exaggerate lips); and
women are attracted to men when they appear to possess wealth and power (e.g.,
expensive automobiles). For example, in studies presenting images of attractive
and unattractive people to men and women, along with descriptions of their
occupations, women preferred unattractive men with high-paying occupations
equally to attractive men with medium-paying occupations. However, men never
preferred unattractive women regardless of their financial status. Environmental
factors of attraction vary considerably across cultures.4
Consider the attractiveness bias in design contexts involving images of people,
such as marketing and advertising. When the presentation of attractive women is
a key element of a design, use renderings or images of women with waist-to-hip
ratios of approximately 0.70, accented by culturally appropriate augmentations
of sexual features. When the presentation of attractive men is a key element of a
design, use renderings or images of men with waist-to-hip ratios of approximately
0.90, and visible indicators of wealth or status (e.g., expensive clothing).
See also Anthropomorphic Form, Baby-Face Bias, Most Average Facial
Appearance Effect, Red Effect, and Waist-to-Hip Ratio.
32 Universal Principles of Design
The first presidential debate between
Richard Nixon and John Kennedy
(1960) is a classic demonstration of
the attractiveness bias. Nixon was
ill and running a fever. He wore
light colors and no makeup, further
whitening his already pale complexion
and contrasting his five-o’clock
shadow. Kennedy wore dark colors,
makeup, and practiced his delivery in
a studio prior to the debate. People
who listened to the debate by radio
believed Nixon to be the winner.
However, people who watched the
debate on TV came to a very different
Attractiveness Bias 33
A tendency to see people and things with baby-faced
features as more naïve, helpless, and honest than those
with mature features.
People and things with round features, large eyes, small noses, high foreheads, 1
The seminal work on the baby-face bias is
“Ganzheit und Teil in der tierischen und
short chins, and relatively lighter skin and hair are perceived as babylike and, as
menschlichen Gemeinschaft” [Part and Parcel
a result, as having babylike personality attributes: naiveté, helplessness, honesty, in Animal and Human Societies] by Konrad
and innocence. The bias is found across all age ranges, cultures, and many Lorenz, Studium Generale, 1950, vol. 3(9).
See Reading Faces: Window to the Soul by
The degree to which people are influenced by the baby-face bias is evident in Leslie A. Zebraowitz, Westview Press, 1998.
how babies are treated by adults. For example, babies with weak baby-face There are many other factors that could
features receive less positive attention from adults and are rated as less likable, account for this statistic. For example, the level
of care and frequency of crying in premature
less attractive, and less fun to be with than babies with strong baby-face features.
babies is significantly higher than for normal-
Large, round heads and eyes appear to be the strongest of the facial cues term babies, which could contribute to the
contributing to this bias. For example, premature babies often lack these key stress of the caregiver.
baby-face features (e.g., their eyes are closed, and their heads are less round)
and are rated by adults as less desirable to care for or be around. A potentially
related phenomenon is the rate of child abuse for premature babies, which is
approximately 300 percent greater than for normal-term babies.2
Baby-faced adults are subject to a similar biased. However, unlike with children,
there are liabilities to being a baby-faced adult. Baby-faced adults appearing in
commercials are effective when their role involves innocence and honesty, such
as a personal testimonial for a product, but ineffective when their role involves
speaking authoritatively about a topic, such as a doctor asserting the benefit of a
product. Baby-faced adults are perceived as simple and naïve, and have difficulty
being taken seriously in situations where expertise or confrontation is required. In
legal proceedings, baby-faced adults are more likely to be found innocent when
the alleged crime involves an intentional act, but are more likely to be found guilty
when the alleged crime involves a negligent act. It is apparently more believable
that a baby-faced person would do wrong accidentally than purposefully.
Interestingly, when a baby-faced defendant pleads guilty, they receive harsher
sentences than mature-faced defendants—it seems the contrast between the
expectation of innocence and the conclusion of guilt evokes a harsher reaction
than when the expectation and the conclusion align.
Consider the baby-face bias in the design of characters or products when facial
attributes are prominent (e.g., cartoon characters for children). Characters of this
type can be made more appealing by exaggerating the various neonatal features
(e.g., larger, rounder eyes). In marketing and advertising, use mature-faced
people when conveying expertise and authority; use baby-faced people when
conveying testimonial information and submissiveness.
See also Anthropomorphic Form, Contour Bias, Attractiveness Bias, Mimicry, and
34 Universal Principles of Design
Baby-face characteristics include
round features, large eyes, small
noses, high foreheads, and short
chins. Superneonatal and super-
mature features are usually only found
in cartoon characters and mythic
creatures. Baby-face features correlate
with perceptions of helplessness
and innocence, whereas mature
features correlate with perceptions of
knowledge and authority.
Baby-Face Bias 35
Environments rich in nature views and imagery
reduce stress and enhance focus and concentration.1
Poets and philosophers have long held that exposure to natural environments 1
The term biophilia effect is based on the
biophilia hypothesis first proposed by Erich
produces restorative benefits. In the past few decades, this claim has been tested
Fromm and popularized by Edward Wilson.
empirically and, indeed, it does appear that exposure to nature confers benefits See, for example, The Biophilia Hypothesis,
emotionally, cognitively, and physically.2 by Stephen Kellert and Edward Wilson (Eds.),
Island Press, 1995.
For example, in a longitudinal study following seven- to twelve-year-olds through
housing relocation, children who experienced the greatest increase in nature
The seminal work on the biophilia effect is
Psychology: The Briefer Course by William
views from their windows made the greatest gains in standard tests of attention
James, Holt, 1892. The seminal empirical work
(potential confounding variables such as differences in home quality were on the effect is Cognition and Environment:
controlled).3 A comparable effect was observed with college students based on Functioning in an Uncertain World by Stephen
the nature views from their dorm windows. Studies that examined the effects of Kaplan and Rachel Kaplan, Praeger Press,
gardening, backpacking, and exposure to nature pictures versus urban pictures 1982.
corroborate the effect. One interesting finding is that the effect does not seem to 3
“At Home with Nature: Effects of ‘Greenness’
require real plants in the environment, but mere imagery — window views, posters on Children’s Cognitive Functioning” by Nancy
on the wall, and so forth seem to suffice.4 Wells, Environment and Behavior, 2000, vol.
Although some non-natural environments may confer similar benefits, nature
“The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward
scenes appear to be the most reliable and consistent source for the general
an Integrative Framework” by Stephen Kaplan,
population. Why should nature imagery be more restorative and conducive to Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1995,
concentration than, for example, urban imagery? The effect is believed to result vol. 15, p. 169–182.
from the differential manner in which the prefrontal cortex processes nature
imagery versus urban imagery. However, given that photographs of nature versus
urban environments are sufficient to trigger the effect, it is likely that the biophilia
effect is more deeply rooted in the brain than the prefrontal cortex — perhaps an
innate bias for greenery evolved in early humans because it conferred a selective
advantage, a bias likely related to the savanna preference.
Consider the biophilia effect in the design of all environments, but in particular,
environments in which learning, healing, and concentration are paramount.
Although nature imagery seems to suffice in lieu of real nature exposure, the
latter should be favored when possible as it is more likely to produce a strong
generalizable effect. Though the amount of nature imagery required to maximize
the effect is not fully understood, architectural classics such as Frank Lloyd
Wright’s Fallingwater and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House suggest that
more nature in the environment is generally better.
See also Cathedral Effect, Immersion, Performance Load, Prospect-Refuge,
Savanna Preference, and Top-Down Lighting Bias.
36 Universal Principles of Design
Before-and-after proposal for a
central hallway redesign in a leading
U.S. hospital based on the biophilia
effect. The installation, titled “Bamboo
Forest,” employs vivid high-resolution
imagery and nature sounds to greet
and comfort patients as they move
from the lobby to their destination.
The redesigned hallway serves as a
memorable landmark assisting
wayfinding, an inspiring passageway
that is harmonious with life and
healing, and a visible expression of
the hospital’s commitment to patient
comfort and quality of experience.
Biophilia Effect 37
A relationship between the perceived height of a
ceiling and cognition. High ceilings promote abstract
thinking and creativity. Low ceilings promote concrete
and detail-oriented thinking.
It is widely accepted that people prefer high ceilings to low ceilings. Lesser 1
The seminal work on the cathedral effect is
known, however, is that ceiling height can influence how people approach “The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of
Priming on the Type of Processing That People
problem solving. Depending on the nature of the problem, ceiling height can
Use” by Joan Meyers-Levy and Rui (Juliet)
either undermine or enhance problem-solving performance. Zhu, Journal of Consumer Research, August
Conspicuous ceiling height — that is, noticeably low or noticeably high ceilings
— promotes different types of cognition, with high ceilings promoting abstract
thinking and creativity and low ceilings promoting concrete and detail-oriented
thinking. No effect is observed if the ceiling height goes unnoticed. In self-report
measures, people predictably rated their general affect as “freer” in high-ceilinged
rooms versus “confined” in low-ceilinged rooms. In word tasks, subjects were
able to solve anagram problems more efficiently when the anagram aligned
with ceiling height. For example, subjects in a high-ceilinged room could solve
freedom-related anagrams (e.g., “liberation”) faster than those in a low-ceilinged
room, but were slower to solve confinement-related anagrams (e.g., “restrained”)
than those in the low-ceilinged room. A more practical example is an experiment
in which two groups were asked to conduct product evaluations, one group in
a high-ceilinged room and one in a low-ceilinged room. The group in the high-
ceilinged room tended to focus on general product characteristics, whereas
the group in the low-ceilinged room tended to focus on specific features. One
hypothesis is that this effect is due to priming — the stimulation of certain concepts
in memory to promote and enhance cognition regarding related concepts. With
the cathedral effect, high ceilings prime “freedom” and related concepts and low
ceilings prime “confinement” and related concepts.
Consider the cathedral effect in the design of work and retail environments.
For tasks that require creativity and out-of-the-box thinking (e.g., research
and development) favor large rooms with high ceilings. For tasks that require
detail-oriented work (e.g., surgical operating room) favor smaller rooms with
lower ceilings. In retail environments, favor spaces with high ceilings when
consumer choice requires imagination (e.g., home remodeling store) and
spaces with lower ceilings for more task-oriented shopping (e.g., convenience
store). Favor high ceilings to extend the time in which visitors remain on site
(e.g., casino) and low ceilings to minimize loitering (e.g., fast food restaurant).
See also Defensible Space, Exposure Effect, Priming, and Prospect-Refuge.
38 Universal Principles of Design
Worm’s Eye View Creativity High Ceiling
Bird’s Eye View Focus Low Ceiling
The ability to focus and perform
detail-oriented work is enhanced by
environments with low ceilings. The
ability to perform more creative work is
enhanced by environments with high
ceilings. A related effect pertains to
visual perspective: worm’s-eye views
(looking upward) evoke cognition and
associations similar to high ceilings,
whereas bird’s-eye views (looking
downward) evoke cognition and
associations similar to low ceilings.
Cathedral Effect 39
A technique of combining many units of information into a
limited number of units or chunks, so that the information
is easier to process and remember.
The term chunk refers to a unit of information in short-term memory—a string 1
The seminal work on short-term memory
limits is “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or
of letters, a word, or a series of numbers. The technique of chunking seeks
Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for
to accommodate short-term memory limits by formatting information into a Processing Information” by George Miller, The
small number of units. The maximum number of chunks that can be efficiently Psychological Review, 1956, vol. 63, p. 81–97.
processed by short-term memory is four, plus or minus one. For example, most As made evident by the title of Miller’s paper,
people can remember a list of five words for 30 seconds, but few can remember his original estimate for short-term memory
capacity was 7 ± 2 chunks.
a list of ten words for 30 seconds. By breaking the list of ten words into multiple,
smaller chunks (e.g., two groups of three words, and one group of four words),
recall performance is essentially equivalent to the single list of five words.1
A readable contemporary reference is Human
Memory: Theory and Practice by Alan
Baddeley, Allyn & Bacon, 1997. Regarding
Chunking is often applied as a general technique to simplify designs. This is a short-term memory limits, see, for example,
potential misapplication of the principle. The limits specified by this principle “The Magical Number Four in Short-Term
deal specifically with tasks involving memory. For example, it is unnecessary and Memory: A Reconsideration of Mental Storage
counterproductive to restrict the number of dictionary entries on a page to four Capacity” by Nelson Cowan, Behavioral and
Brain Sciences, 2001, vol. 24, p. 87–114.
or five. Reference-related tasks consist primarily of scanning for a particular item;
chunking in this case would dramatically increase the scan time and effort, and
yield no benefits.
Chunk information when people are required to recall and retain information, or
when information is used for problem solving. Do not chunk information that is
to be searched or scanned. In environments where noise or stress can interfere
with concentration, consider chunking critical display information in anticipation of
diminished short-term memory capacity. Use the contemporary estimate of 4 ± 1
chunks when applying this technique.2
See also Errors, Mnemonic Device, Performance Load, and Signal-to-Noise Ratio.
40 Universal Principles of Design
This e-learning course by Kaplan
EduNeering makes excellent use
of chunking. Note that the number
of content topics (left gray panel)
observes the appropriate limits, as
do the information chunks on the
topics themselves. Overview and
Challenge are not counted because
they contain organizing information
and quizzes only.
Familiar words are easier to remember
and chunk together than unfamiliar
words. Of the two lists, list 1 is easier
292-63-5732 (704) 555-6791
Large strings of numbers are difficult
to recall. Chunking large strings of
numbers into multiple, smaller strings
can help. Most people can remember
their Social Security number and
frequently called phone numbers.
A technique used to associate a stimulus with an
unconscious physical or emotional response.
Classical conditioning was the first type of learning to be studied by behavioral 1
The seminal work in classical conditioning is
Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the
psychologists. Lab workers discovered the technique when they noticed that dogs
Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex by
in the laboratory began salivating as soon as they entered the room. Because Ivan Pavlov, 1927 (translated and edited by G.
the lab workers feed the dogs, their presence (neutral stimulus) had become V. Anrep, Dover Publications, 1984).
associated with food (trigger stimulus), and, therefore, elicited the same response
as the food itself (salivation). Similar behaviors are seen in fish when they surface 2
See “Conditioned Emotional Reactions” by
at the sight of an approaching person, or in cats when they come running at the John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner, Journal
sound of a can opener.1 of Experimental Psychology, 1920, vol. 3(1),
p. 1–14; and “Reward Value of Attractiveness
and Gaze” by Knut K. W. Kampe, Chris D.
Classical conditioning is commonly used in animal training (e.g., associating
Frith, Raymond J. Dolan, and Uta Frith,
chemical traces of TNT with sugar water to train bees to detect bombs), behavior Nature, 2001, v. 413, p. 589.
modification in people (e.g., associating smoking with aversive images or tastes),
and marketing and advertising (i.e., associating products or services with attractive
images or feelings). For example, television and magazine advertising firms use
classical conditioning frequently to associate products and services with specific
thoughts and feelings. Images of attractive people stimulate reward centers in the
brain, and condition positive associations with products, services, and behaviors.
Conversely, disturbing images of extreme violence or injury stimulate pain centers
in the brain, and condition negative associations with products, services, and
behaviors. Human emotions condition quickly and easily in this way, particularly
when the association is negative. In a classic experiment, a young child was
exposed to a white rat accompanied by a loud noise. The child not only grew
to fear the white rat (which he did not fear previously), but other furry things
as well (e.g., fur coats). Many phobias are caused by this type of association.
For example, many children become anxious when visiting the dentist because
previous experiences have been painful—dentists often give children treats in an
attempt to reverse this association.2
Use classical conditioning to influence the appeal of a design or influence specific
kinds of behaviors. Repeated pairings of a design with a trigger stimulus will
condition an association over time. Examples of positive trigger stimuli include
anything that causes pleasure or evokes a positive emotional response—a picture
of food, the sound of a drink being poured, images of attractive people. Examples
of negative trigger stimuli include anything that causes pain or evokes a negative
emotional response—physical pain of a vaccination, an embarrassing experience,
or images of extreme pain and violence.
See also Exposure Effect, Operant Conditioning, Shaping, and Veblen Effect.
42 Universal Principles of Design
This poster features before and after emotional reaction evoked by
images of Jacqueline Saburido, a Jacqueline’s injuries with the behavior
20-year old college student who was that caused them.
hit by a drunk driver. It effectively
associates the strong negative
Classical Conditioning 43
A tendency to perceive a set of individual elements as
a single, recognizable pattern, rather than multiple,
The principle of closure is one of a number of principles referred to as Gestalt 1
The seminal work on closure is
“Untersuchungen zür Lehre von der Gestalt,
principles of perception. It states that whenever possible, people tend to perceive
II” [Laws of Organization in Perceptual
a set of individual elements as a single, recognizable pattern, rather than Forms] by Max Wertheimer, Psychologische
multiple, individual elements. The tendency to perceive a single pattern is so Forschung, 1923, vol. 4, p. 301–350, reprinted
strong that people will close gaps and fill in missing information to complete the in A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology by
pattern if necessary. For example, when individual line segments are positioned Willis D. Ellis (ed.), Routledge & Kegan Paul,
1999, p. 71–88.
along a circular path, they are first perceived holistically as a circle, and then as
comprising multiple, independent elements. The tendency to perceive information
in this way is automatic and subconscious; it is likely a function of an innate
See, for example, Understanding Comics: The
Invisible Art by Scott McCloud, Kitchen Sink
preference for simplicity over complexity, and pattern over randomness.1
Closure is strongest when elements approximate simple, recognizable patterns,
such as geometric forms, and are located near one another. When simple,
recognizable patterns are not easily perceived, designers can create closure
through transitional elements (e.g., subtle visual cues that help direct the eye
to find the pattern). Generally, if the energy required to find or form a pattern is
greater than the energy required to perceive the elements individually, closure will
The principle of closure enables designers to reduce complexity by reducing
the number of elements needed to organize and communicate information. For
example, a logo design that is composed of recognizable elements does not need
to complete many of its lines and contours to be clear and effective. Reducing the
number of lines in the logo not only reduces its complexity, but it makes the logo
more interesting to look at—viewers subconsciously participate in the completion
of its design. Many forms of storytelling leverage closure in a similar way. For
example, in comic books, discrete scenes in time are presented to readers, who
then supply what happens in between. The storyline is a unique combination of
information provided by the storyteller, and information provided by the reader.2
Use closure to reduce the complexity and increase the interestingness of designs.
When designs involve simple and recognizable patterns, consider removing or
minimizing the elements in the design that can be supplied by viewers. When
designs involve more complex patterns, consider the use of transitional elements
to assist viewers in finding or forming the pattern.
See also Good Continuation, Law of Prägnanz, and Proximity.
44 Universal Principles of Design
The elements are perceived holistically
as a single pattern first (circle), and
then as individual elements.
Elements in text and graphics can
be minimized to allow viewers to
participate in the completion of
the pattern. The result is a more
Series images are understood as
representing motion because people
supply the information in between
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